I have a letter to the editor in today’s Grand Forks Herald objecting to the idea that Chancellor Hamid Shirvani is everything that’s wrong with North Dakota’s university system. While much of the criticism of his management style may be valid, let’s remember that North Dakota’s universities had major problems before he even arrived.
At this point, it’s clear we need a house cleaning.
In my letter I point out that university presidents, most notably NDSU’s Dean Bresciani, have been working to undermine Shirvani’s leadership throughout this debacle. Today another lengthy report from the Fargo Forum illustrates that point even more starkly. It notes that even as Bresciani was grousing about Chancellor Shirvani having stepped in on a controversy over funding for a partnership between NDSU and Planned Parenthood, he didn’t tell Shirvani or the Board of Higher Education that he’d already been speaking to the media about it:
The board members also asked about the level of communication with the campus presidents, Holloway recalls. In response to that, Donlin recalled a recent meeting with NDSU President Dean Bresciani in which university system officials were strategizing their media response to the flap about a grant for a sex-education program.
A grant given to a pair of NDSU researchers to start a voluntary sex-ed program for Fargo-area teens in cooperation with Planned Parenthood had been put on hold to make sure it was legal under state law.
An earlier open records request by The Forum showed that Bresciani had bristled at Shirvani stepping into the controversy without telling him. On Jan. 30, Shirvani announced NDUS staff had requested Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem research the law and issue a written opinion. The following day, Bresciani emailed the grant recipients to let them know he was disappointed to be caught by surprise by the request from Shirvani.
“I wish I could suggest that will change in the future, but sadly, we probably shouldn’t hold our breath on it,” he said.
Bresciani apparently returned the favor.
Donlin told board members that Bresciani didn’t mention in their meeting to plot their media response that he’d just talked to the media about the scandal.
The problem at the root of the controversy surrounding Chancellor Shirvani is that he is trying to unify a system of universities run by pampered bureaucrats who don’t want to be managed by anyone. For far too long, each university in the state has been allowed to be run as its own little city-state. When Shirvani stepped in with a plan to end that practice, and to run the universities as a system, the presidents revolted and the current political food-fight is what we’re left with.
Was Shirvani overbearing? Was he too ham-handed? Maybe. But what is without doubt is that even as he tried to accomplish the task assigned to him by the board the hired him, he has been undermined at every step by the likes of President Bresciani.
Whether Shirvani stays or goes, it is clear we ought to fire several university presidents if we’re to have any real hope of reforming the university system.
North Dakota voters will have an opportunity next year to vote to eliminate the State Board of Higher Education and the Chancellor’s position and replace it with something new. But that reform will only work if we get politically toxic leaders like Dean Bresciani out of the universities.